Alleged assault raises safety concerns at Copper Ridge Place

Sarah couldn't cry for help when the man slid his hand under her blanket and down her underwear. The 54-year-old woman has severe Down syndrome and wasn't able to defend herself.

Sarah couldn’t cry for help when the man slid his hand under her blanket and down her underwear.

The 54-year-old woman has severe Down syndrome and wasn’t able to defend herself.

The alleged sexual assault, witnessed by a staff member, happened at Copper Ridge Place on July 14 around 9 p.m., less than six weeks after Sarah (not her real name) arrived at the facility.

Before moving into Copper Ridge, Sarah lived with her sister Liesel Briggs for 11 years.

Briggs was also caring for their 90-year-old mother, who had been Sarah’s primary caregiver until she could no longer care for herself.

“It got to the point where we were sleeping with baby monitors by the bed,” said Briggs.

Sarah couldn’t even go to the bathroom alone.

“For the last couple years it was pretty much 24/7,” she said.

Briggs didn’t want to put her sister in the home, but when her family doctor told her it was taking too much of a toll on Briggs’ health, she caved.

“I hit a wall, I was just exhausted,” she said.

Relieved her sister was in a “safe environment” at Copper Ridge, Briggs was able to go on holiday with her family for the first time in more than a decade.

Rested and happy, she returned to an answering machine flashing with messages. One was from a nurse at Copper Ridge asking her to come in for a meeting.

“I walked in and sat down and it was like being blindsided,” said Briggs, who was told about the assault.

“I just couldn’t believe it, she’d only been here six weeks.”

Sarah had deteriorated following the assault, said Briggs.

She was having more seizures and spending more time in a silent, confused stupor.

Copper Ridge staff informed Briggs the man had been moved out of her sister’s unit and was under one-on-one supervision.

But the next time she came to visit, he rolled by them in the hallway and gave Sarah a look that made Briggs’ skin crawl.

“That’s when I realized they weren’t doing enough; he shouldn’t still be there,” she said.

The police are now involved with the case.

But staff at Copper Ridge didn’t report the incident until July 21 – eight days after the assault took place, according to RCMP Sgt. Tom Wyers.

The investigation is now complete, he said. “And we’re working with the Crown to determine whether charges will be laid.”

Briggs learned that the man had also been involved in an incident in 2005 at Copper Ridge that raised “red flags with staff,” she said.

Staff at Copper Ridge told Briggs the facility wasn’t built for sexual or high-risk offenders.

“So why are they there?” she asked.

Briggs waited a long time before going public.

Through August and September she spent a lot of time with her sister, “who was not doing well.

“She’d sit in bed with her hands over her face,” she said.

“You look after someone for 11 years then you find a place where you think they will be safe and suddenly you realize they’re not safe … you just pull your hair and think What could I have done?

“And of course you feel guilty.”

At the beginning of September, Briggs sent a letter to Copper Ridge extended care director Willy Shippey asking what precautions the facility was considering, to prevent future assaults.

She didn’t get a response.

So, on Monday, she made the letter public.

“I wanted to wait and be respectful,” she said.

“But I kept thinking about all the other (Sarahs) out there that need to be protected.”

Briggs wants to know why the alleged offender is not in a secure area, pending the RCMP investigation.

Copper Ridge has a secure wing, said Health spokesperson Pat Living on Thursday.

“But it is only for patients suffering dementia.”

The man was not in the dementia unit, which suggests he was well aware of his actions.

Briggs also suggested Copper Ridge install security cameras.

Right now, the only camera on the premises is outside the front door, said Living.

“There is no surveillance inside the building.”

And Briggs wants to know why potential residents don’t have to undergo a criminal-record check.

“Even if someone does have a criminal record, where do you draw the line?” said Living.

“We’re the only game in town.

“And we can’t refuse to provide care under the human rights act.”

But when pressed, Living admitted not all clients are accepted at Copper Ridge.

“On rare occasions, clients with medical or behavioural problems are considered for placements Outside,” she said.

“But only if we can’t manage to care for them within the facility.”

Living couldn’t speak to the recent assault at Copper Ridge because of “patient confidentiality,” she said.

But Briggs learned the man was moved elsewhere.

She didn’t know where, until she visited Whitehorse General Hospital with her daughter and saw him cruising the main foyer in his wheelchair a few weeks ago.

“Sometimes people are moved places because of assessments or medical needs,” said Living.

“But that doesn’t mean they can’t come back into the facility.”

If necessary, Copper Ridge can provide one-on-one monitoring, said Living.

“But it’s rare.”

Copper Ridge has policies and procedures, and carries out ongoing assessments on its residents, she said.

“And we work hard to ensure people in our care are protected.

“I have every confidence our facilities are safe,” said Living.

“But that’s not to say that from time to time things don’t happen.”

Briggs doesn’t want the incident “swept under the rug.”

And she doesn’t want her sister’s assailant back under the same roof.

Briggs has been requesting meetings with the Health minister since August, but all she received was a phone message telling her to go to victim services, according to Briggs’ letter.

“People with families in continuing care should feel confident that they are being safely looked after,” wrote Briggs.

Sarah “is a vulnerable person.

“However, she is not the only vulnerable woman or man in continuing care.”

It’s not easy putting a family member into care, she said.

“And when you do make that decision, you want to do so with confidence.

“But I can no longer say I have that confidence.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at